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Dead Students Society

Even Morgan has put a brilliantly apt title on a condition that describes far too many U. S. schools as well as Canadian.

We definitely need a Dying Students Society, an organization that recognizes the desperate plight of our students, K-12. . . recognizes and revolts.

by Evan Morgan

AROUND THIS TIME last year I'd probably have been loading up my high school backpack, getting ready for another 10 months of aching shoulders. But now that I'm out, I confess. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I was a member of the Dead Students Society -- one of the many who took their classroom seats and put their lives on hold, waiting for the end of another deadly day, five times a week. Not that I was a bad student. I worked hard to get high marks, but my real ambitions lay beyond the classroom. Sure, I had lots of friends, lots of laughs, and lots of imagination, but that wasn't enough to save me from the mind-numbing traditions of credits, class notes and curriculum.

One day my frustration reached a head. I came home and asked my parents if I could drop out of school so that I might have more time to fulfill my ambition of becoming a writer. They refused, of course. But they cut me a deal: if I continued to get high grades and remain on the honour roll, I could fast-track, finish a year early, and spend my spare year working on the writing projects that I've had to shelve along the way.

Well, I did it. I got the grades and have claimed my year of freedom. But as I move toward the future, I find myself dwelling on the past. My memories of high school are rather cloudy. Strange, considering how recent they are. But then again, they were cloudy as I lived them. I would wake up every morning at seven, eyes weighted by lack of sleep, and stumble to the shower in a tired stupor. As the day moved forward, I would eventually grow more alert, though no more awake. Upon completing my walk to school, I would be overcome by the same, solemn thought: "Time for another day of clock-watching." Soon I would be sitting behind a desk, my spirit draining from me as the ink does from a pen.

Most of my friends would agree that this is the daily reality of a high school student. You spend so much time "learning," yet learn so little. Education is not built around inspiring interest or provoking thought, but memorizing facts. It's as if tennis balls are being thrown at your head. They bounce right off, leaving only faint impressions that last until test time, when they fade away. For example, history, the way it was taught to me, was one extensive board note, and each class seemed longer than the era it was covering. Abstract facts are meaningless until they're given an intellectual or emotional charge that makes you want to learn.

In the days following Sept. 11, all students took a renewed interest in the world issues class, because of its new emotional weight. But despite the new energy of the students, our teacher refused to talk about the tragedy. She said it was "too current," and that she didn't want to discuss it until "all the facts were in." In response, I dropped the course.

For me, learning is thinking, creating, understanding. It is about nourishing rather than numbing the mind. For years I have learned more in the summertime, when I am free to think on my own terms, than in the school year. The pen in my hand means something more than a final exam. It stretches beyond standardized testing and into my creative spirit.

Everything in school, on the other hand, is stuck to a curriculum, including the good teachers. Even great literature is treated like an instruction manual, and becomes just as exciting. Students are left uninspired. The process leads kids to associate learning with boredom, and pushes them closer to the television screen, leaving all books in their backpacks.

Einstein was right. Time is relative. It's amazing how long an hour and 15 minutes can seem. I remember, more than once, when the computers were down in my typing class, the teacher would still make us sit out the period even though we couldn't do any work. On my first day of class I noticed that the windows had been bolted down. Now I understand why.

The most energizing moment of my entire high school experience may have been when I watched Dead Poets Society in my Grade 10 English class. Sadly, that moment was to remain on the television screen. But in the hours it played, I saw everything modern education was missing: creativity, energy, passion. Here was part of the answer to the education crisis, yet it was incorporated merely as part of the lesson plan.

I can't say I know the exact solution to the problems in the education system. But it is clear that high schools must occupy young minds with something worthy of their energy. Students' thinking needs to be challenged, not discouraged. Education needs to be stimulating, not strained. In my philosophy class last year, I remember hearing a description of Plato's Academy. In his school, critical thought was the basis for education; open discussion was as important as curriculum. It is this spirit that modern education needs to rekindle. I agree that there are certain things we should be taught -- history, science, literature, math and much more. But might we find a way of teaching them creatively? Only if learning is given new spirit will dead students find new life.

Evan Morgan went to high school in Toronto, Ontario.

To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca

— Evan Morgan
The Upside-Down School Room





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